EAST LANSING, Mich. — The term “musical genius” is usually thrown around in reference to well known and groundbreaking musicians and song writers like Mozart or Chopin. However, according to the results of a new study, high intellect may be far more common among musicians than many assume. After analyzing how a group of beginning pianists honed their craft, researchers say that intelligence may play a role in how quickly an individual can learn how to play music.
Learning how to play a new instrument, or specific song, takes different people varying amounts of time to master. While this has always been filed under each person’s own unique musical aptitude, this study is among the first ever to look closely at the relationship between one’s overall intelligence, musical aptitude, and growth mindset. Growth mindset was defined by the study’s authors as the level of confidence a musical student has in their ability to keep improving their skills, in this case, their piano playing skills.
“The strongest predictor of skill acquisition was intelligence, followed by music aptitude,” explains study author Alexander Burgoyne, a doctoral candidate in cognition and cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State University, in a release. “By contrast, the correlation between growth mindset and piano performance was about as close to zero as possible.”
For the research, 161 undergraduate students were taught how to play “Happy Birthday” on piano via an instructional video. Each student was then given some time to practice, before performing the song for a group of three judges. The judges gave each student a score based off of their melodic and rhythmic accuracy.
Predictably, the musical skills of the participating students varied greatly. Some were able to pick up the song and play it well quickly, while others struggled initially before improving over time. Certain participants started strong but seemed to loss interest in the task, and another group of students were never able to get the hang of it, struggling mightily throughout the activity.
So, in an effort to determine why certain students excelled while others failed, researchers had each participant complete a cognition test focused on problem-solving skills and processing speed. Additionally, each student completed a music aptitude test and filled out a growth mindset survey.
“The results were surprising, because people have claimed that mindset plays an important role when students are confronted with challenges, like trying to learn a new musical instrument,” Burgoyne says. “And yet, it didn’t predict skill acquisition.”
For now, though, the research team believe their findings should only be considered in reference to the early stages of musical education.
“Our study examined one of the earliest stages of skill acquisition,” Burgoyne adds. “Early experiences can be formative, but I would caution against drawing conclusions about skilled musicians based on our study of beginners.”
The study is published in the scientific journal Intelligence.